Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Derge, Kham Province, Days 14 and 15

My next destination was Derge, the closest town in Sichuan to Tibet that I could legally visit. I thought about getting off at Manigango, a small town halfway between Ganzi and Derge (and described by the Czech girl in Ganzi as "so bad it's good") but when we passed through it was snowing, and there was already nearly a foot on the ground. I was planning on hiking and didn't feel up to trudging through the snow just then, and I figured that since I would probably have to backtrack I could simply check it out later.
The bus stopped at Manigango for lunch, and I ate with a family of three from a city near Chengdu that was moving to Chamdo, in Eastern Tibet, to find work. I had sat next to the son on the bus, who was around sixteen years old and extremely friendly. The father told me that he was a steel worker back in his hometown, but some friends of his in Chamdo had arranged for him to get a better job there.
Also while on the bus I met my travel companions for the next few days. One was a Frenchman named Thomas, who works in Beijing and was on his last vacation in China. He spoke excellent Chinese and had a jaded view of the country that most foreigners who work here seem to get. It was refreshing to meet another foreigner who had an idea of what living in China is like. The other two were a middle-aged Chinese couple who, like Li Tong, liked travelling and trekking in China's more isolated areas.
After Manigango we had to cross the Trola Mountains to get to Derge. The Trola Pass is the highest pass this side of Tibet, reaching an altitude of 5050 meters. Lonely Planet makes it sound downright scary, and describes rickety buses and valleys with the ruined remains of trucks that slipped down the steep cliffs. The scenery of the mountains was indeed desolate and beautiful. Craggy black rocks peeked out from under the snow. At one point a truck in front of us did actually begin to slip down the cliff. The driver managed to get it back onto the road with a little help from other drivers. The wreckage Lonely Planet mentioned was no where to be seen, which I frankly found to be a little disappointing (I'm assuming the government got in the habit of cleaning up the remains of accidents). Eventually we descended into green valleys filled with forests and fields much like those I left behind in Danba, albeit a little less lush.
I ended up sticking with Thomas and the two Chinese, though Thomas and I both soon grew a little tired of them. They seemed to argue with each other continuously, and were often dismissive of others, and were a little arrogant. We agreed to travel around the Derge area with them nonetheless, since it would make hiring a car cheaper.
On our first day in Derge we got up early to see Derge's main sight, the Parkhang Printing Monastery. Derge is a small town, smaller than Ganzi, but is considered the cultural heart of Kham (Chamdo, about eight or nine hours to the west by car, was traditionally the political and economic center). This is largely because of the printing monastery. The monastery contains sevety percent of Tibet's literary tradition, in the form of carved wooden boards. Most of the monastery is given over to shelf after shelf of these boards. The monks are most proud of one board that is written in Sanskrit, ancient Tibetan and modern Tibetan.
In one room you can watch the printers at work. There are two rows of them, with a pair of them working at each station. One of them rubs the board they are printing with paint, then they both put a strip of paper on the board, and then the other one presses the paper against the board. They keep repeating the process over and over, occassionally changing boards, and putting the finished sheets on a table next to them. They all worked incredibly fast, some of them managing to print a sheet about every five seconds. Aside from the printing press, the monastery contained the usual prayer halls one finds in Tibetan temples, which were among the more beautiful that I have seen.
Aside from the monks and printers there were also several kids who worked at the temple, showing tourists around and making sure we didn't take pictures. I ended up talking to a couple of them, and got them to teach me a little Kham Tibetan- I had lost the notebook with my notes from Jiaju, and it seemed that every time I went to a new place people spoke differently. Derge's Tibetan, though, is supposed to be the standard for Kham, so I figurted it was the best place to learn a little. One of the kids asked me to come to house to teach him a little English. I told him I would go in a few days- I figured it could be interesting, though honestly I didn't know if I would actually end up going.

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